In every debate, there needs to be a tipping point which pushes the discussion from civil exchange among insiders to a full-throated cry for change.
Consider the point tipped.
Just two weeks ago, I wrote that it was time for the powers that be inside college athletics to have a wide-ranging, soul-searching discussion about the efficacy and fairness of postseason bans. I understand the need for harsh penalties. I understand the importance of deterring bad behavior. I understand that whatever the punishment, there is bound to be some collateral damage incurred by people, particularly athletes, who have done nothing wrong. There have been other voices calling for this discussion, but there has never been enough public outrage to stir it up.
Enter Trey Lewis and Damion Lee.
They are not just seniors at Louisville, like the three seniors at SMU who were denied the chance to play in the 2016 postseason because of a penalty handed down by the NCAA last fall. Rather, Lewis and Lee are graduate transfers, players who competed for other schools last season (Lewis for Cleveland State, Lee for Drexel) and who were good enough to play just about anywhere they wanted. They chose Louisville because there were minutes available, but mostly, they came for the chance to experience the NCAA tournament.
Now they won’t, and now everyone knows: This is dead wrong.
It is not surprising that Louisville has been hit with a postseason ban. From the moment Katrina Powell made her startling revelations in a book, Breaking Cardinal Rules, last fall, it was apparent that it wouldn’t be hard for the NCAA to build a case that Level I violations had been committed. Among other things, Powell alleged that she and other women were paid large sums of money by a former Louisville staffer, Andre McGee, to have sex with recruits. If nothing else, these allegations made it a layup to establish a lack of institutional control, an intentionally vague phrase that can be applied to all kinds of malfeasance without having to connect a whole lot of dots.
What is surprising, and incredibly disheartening, is the school’s decision to apply this ban to this year’s tournament as opposed to next year’s. NCAA rules already provide the opportunity for rising seniors (not just graduated ones) to transfer to another school and play right away if their school is facing a postseason ban. Yet, it is too late for Lewis and Lee to go elsewhere. Eleven months ago, they had all kinds of choices because they had performed well on the court and fulfilled their responsibilities in the classroom. Now, they have none.
Why would Louisville decide to do it this way? Simple. If the Cardinals could not play in the 2017 tourney, then they would likely lose players they already have and have a difficult time convincing new recruits to come. So Louisville president James Ramsey sacrificed Lee and Lewis in order to benefit the short-term state of his basketball program. That is a shameful decision.
Louisville’s outside investigative attorney, Chuck Smrt, defended Friday’s announcement by saying it showed “decisiveness.” What it really showed was panic. During the press conference, Ramsey revealed that he had just learned the previous day that Level I violations had likely been committed. This news came from the school’s own investigation, which worked with the NCAA’s enforcement staff. The probe has gone on for months and still has a ways to go before reaching a resolution. It would not have been hard for the school to wait another month to take this step. And even if it wanted to be “decisive,” it could have done so in a way that is fair to Lee, Lewis and their teammates. Ramsey chose otherwise.
Unfortunately, these situations are going to become more frequent now that we have entered the head coach responsibility era, whereby the men and women who run these programs are deemed accountable for transgressions committed by the people who work for them, regardless of whether it can be proven those head coaches knew about those activities. Three years ago, the NCAA restructured its enforcement division and created a penalty matrix so that specific categories of violations would trigger specific penalties. Stricter accountability plus specific categories plus stiffer penalties equates to more and more postseason bans. This is only the beginning.
To be sure, when a program breaks rules, it should face serious outcomes. It’s likely that Louisville will face other penalties as this case is brought to a resolution, from a potential suspension for head coach Rick Pitino to limiting recruiting travel to reducing the number of scholarships. Yet, nothing has the sting of postseason bans. They are an effective weapon, and they aren’t going anywhere.
The next step, then, is to establish a matrix for timing. Anytime a school or the Committee on Infractions imposes a postseason ban, it should not go into effect until the players who are in the program have had a chance to complete their current seasons. It’s not that complicated.
A similar situation occurred in two high-profile programs over the last year. In March, 2015, Syracuse self-imposed a postseason ban, which meant that the team’s lone senior, forward Rakeem Christmas, would suffer the consequences for something he didn’t do. Last September, the NCAA took SMU out the 2016 postseason, which will have the same unfair blowback against three seniors who helped lead the Mustangs to an 18–0 start to the season (they’re now 19–2). They earned a lot of kudos for being the last undefeated team, and they deserved every one. But what they really deserve is the chance to keep playing in the postseason.
When I raised this issue two weeks ago with SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who is also the current chair of the Committee on Infractions, he acknowledged that he had heard some stirrings of concern over the timing of postseason bans, and while there is no current legislative push to address this issue, Sankey allowed that he was open to the possibility. “I do think it’s a point of consideration,” he said.
If someone wants to make the argument for keeping things the way they are, let's hear it. If someone has a better idea about how to deter cheating, we should consider it. We used to need a constructive conversation, but it's now clear that what we really need is a loud, impassioned debate.
Most of all, we need a better way. A solution is not going to arrive in time to give Trey Lewis and Damion Lee the chance they deserve to compete for a championship. But it could prevent future players in their situation from having to suffer the same, painful fate.